Jambo, Jambo (Part 1)

Don’t step in any elephant poo, said Irwin, and that was useful advice – unlike the well-worn suggestion to ‘break a leg’ (something I heard all the time back in the days when I was on-stage with Encore!) – especially considering where we would be going. Please understand that a safari to Tanzania – where we just might come across some elephants and their ‘leavings’ – was not what I had planned or had in mind. My original wish-list itinerary for this year had been: Feb. 9, attend Sommelier in Tel Aviv, the most prestigious wine-tasting event in Israel; and, whenever they finalized the dates in June, the kosher culinary trip to Tuscany (where we would make our own pasta, dig for truffles, and visit Terra diSete, the only kosher winery in that part of the world).

My plans for the wine-tasting event on Feb. 9 fell by the wayside, victim of another four-day AACI study trip, where we would be staying at a hotel with a breath-taking view of the Mediterranean and, among other things, visiting the local sea turtle rescue facility. But then, that plan got changed as well at the last minute.

When we went on an AACI-sponsored trip to Morocco (you remember Morocco, don’t you?), we had the services of Cindy Kline as our guide, and I’ve been in touch with her on Facebook ever since. She sent me a message on WhatsApp (kind of risky, since I rarely look there), something to the effect of: I know it’s last minute, but would you and Barbara like to join a trip to Tanzania? Because I am a dutiful husband, I showed my wife the message, which got her truly excited. Have Cindy send me the information, which she did.

The long and the short of it was that Cindy was, among other things, working with Shai Bar Ilan, an Israeli outfit that markets ‘geographical tours’ to Israeli Israelis (not those of us who peruse Torah Tidbits –if you get my drift). Part of Cindy’s job was to work with English speakers on a tour beginning on Feb. 9. She had one couple prepared to sign up, and she needed another couple to fill a jeep (to be accurate, the ‘jeep’ was actually a Toyota Land Cruiser, the standard vehicle for travel through the back roads of Tanzania). In the twinkling of an eye, we cancelled our previous plans, signed up for this trip, paid our money, and headed over to Terem to get whatever shots and prescriptions were needed for travel to Africa. It turned out that the inoculations we had gotten for our journey to India several years ago (you remember our trip to India with the two Aris and Ralphy, don’t you?) were all we needed – except for a prescription for anti-malaria pills and some over-the-top advice about keeping our bodies completely covered as a precaution against mosquitoes, a text book recommendation that we later found out is universally ignored.

Dudu, our always reliable get-us-to-the-airport-on-time cab driver brought us to Ben-Gurion at 9PM Sat. night, exactly when we were supposed to show up – in time to meet the others in the group, all thirteen of us, not counting Cindy and the two other absolutely indispensable tour guides going with us.

Let’s start with Elyakim, the quartermaster. He arrived at the airport, as announced, with five large duffel bags filled with supplies – all we would need (not counting locally grown fruits and vegetables) for us to be well-fed and maintain reasonable standards of kashrut far away from the nearest kosher market. He was also the chief schmoozer, and you should never be without one if you’re going far away.

Elyakim shmoozing with one of the hotel employees

Yigal was the scholar-in-residence.

That’s Yigal

He is apparently an expert on what we would be seeing along the way. Of course, he delivered his lectures in Ivrit, so I didn’t bother. But then, I rarely pay attention to much of what is said on trips like this; I’d rather look than listen. Also, and this you may not know, one of my first long-term photographic projects back in the 70’s and 80’s was at the Bronx Zoo, so most of the animals we were going to see, I have already observed and photographed. (Not that I’m suggesting that the two experiences are comparable.)

Bronx Zoo, c. 1975

That was the one down-side to our tour. Just about all of the Israelis had some English, but just as English is my language-of-conversation, theirs is Ivrit. Hence, most of what went on escaped my attention. The only exception was when we were in our little ghetto, our Land Cruiser, Barbara and I, with Ellie and Steve (two Brits who have lived in The Land for some forty years) Cindy, and our invaluable guide, Moudi (more about him later). Note to self: in the future, stick to excursions where the participants speak your language; you’ll get a lot more out of it. I was delighted to discover that MY language is one of the two official ones in Tanzania – along with Swahili – and speaking Ivrit in the Serengeti won’t get you very far.

But enough of this chit-chat; back to the airport. It was 9PM, and our flight was to leave about midnight. It takes only about an hour to go through the necessary pre-boarding procedures (security and the like) at our local airport, and that’s because they have some idea of what they’re doing and whom they’re looking for. Our problem was finding the counters for RwandAir, which were all the way in the back, next to the lines for Royal Jordanian Airline, another not-so high-profile carrier!

If you’re going to be waiting in an airport for two hours, you might as well do your milling about at Ben-Gurion. It’s big enough that there are places to walk and shops to gawk at and a shul to daven in, but it’s not so big that you might get lost in your wandering. Plus (a very big plus) unlike at any other airport in the world, the food is all kosher, so if you want to grab a pre-boarding snack, you can do it.

Once you’ve boarded a plane at midnight for a six-hour flight, what’s the one thing you want to do? If you’re like me and a lot of other people I know, you want to catch as many precious zzzzzz’s as possible. I don’t know where it’s harder to sleep, an airplane or a hospital. Either place, there’s always someone needing to wake you up. There’s no such thing as a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign. (Well, not quite. There were a lot of empty seats, probably because the red-eye to Rwanda is not a crowd-pleaser. The more savvy passengers rushed to the back and commandeered the available three-seats-together, where they sprawled out, dead to the world. The flight attendants were reluctant to disturb those folks – while the rest of us were fair game.)

To add insult to injury, when the friendly flight attendant came around, we were handed something indescribably awful to eat. There’s an outfit, I think out of South Africa, with the deceptive name, Always Kosher; it should be called Always Krap. I’d like to meet them in a dark alley sometime and insist they eat their own food. That’ll larn ‘em.

We did arrive at the Kigali Airport in Rwanda on schedule, somewhere around 6AM Sun. morning, where we would spend another six hours or so waiting for our connecting flight. Ben-Gurion Airport is not gigantic by international standards, but you could probably fit Kigali into the restrooms at B-G. At least they have comfortable reclining seats, and the one place that serves food has first-rate coffee (more on the coffee situation later). Plus, they do have a ‘prayer room.’

Not what I would want in a ‘prayer room’

A little bit later than scheduled, we were set to board the plane taking us to the airport in Kilimanjaro. Wait a minute! That’s the plane? When was the last time you were on a plane that looked like this?

Flying so high in the sky….

And here’s the food they served us, again courtesy of Always Krap, I mean Always Kosher.

Haute cuisine, courtesy of Always Kosher

We arrived in Tanzania a half hour after we were scheduled to land. Ordinarily, that small amount of time would have made no difference. After all, we had left our apartment in Maale Adumim at 8PM, and it was now something like 2:30 PM local time, meaning we had been traveling FOREVER, with little sleep. However, we arrived at the same time as every other flight coming into this airport – which is even smaller than the one in Rwanda – if you can imagine that.

You need a visa to enter Tanzania. Not the only country to require one, and we’ve gone through the process once or twice – usually before we’ve left Israel. In Tanzania, visas are supplied at the airport – in exchange for a fifty dollar bill (U.S. money, which is universally accepted there) or a credit card. I forgot: if you’re traveling on your American passport, it’s $100! Don’t ask me why.

However you intend to pay, you fill out a form and get on line. Actually, you get to go on four lines. The first line, you hand in your passport and your form and the clerk shuffles some paper. The second line, they give you back your passport. The third line is for you to pay, and for them to shuffle more paper. When you get to the desk at the fourth line, the clerk shuffles some more paper, carefully stapling everything together, and hands you your visa. Because of the number of passengers going through this ordeal, it took us two hours to get out of the airport.

I was reminded of our trauma at the airport in Barcelona, when the police who handle passport control were pulled for traffic duty and we waited in a dark non-air-conditioned corridor for several hours with people plotzing from the heat. (You remember that, don’t you?) Now I’m the guy who, when asked at Terem if I was allergic to anything, replied, “Yes, stupidity.” I was prepared to add Tanzania to my list of ‘never-again’ places, and then we found out that recently, so recently that the Shai Bar Ilan people were unaware of the change, you can now obtain a Tanzanian visa online. Imagine that: four clerks passing forms back and forth, shuffling and re-shuffling them, stapling them, and collecting money, while weary travelers wait for all this to happen, will be replaced by a computer-based process that shouldn’t take more than five minutes. It couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of guys.

And then we were done: out of the airport into the late afternoon light of a summer day in Tanzania where the jeeps and our local guides were waiting for us. How does that little snippet from The Wizard of Oz go?

You’re out of the woods, You’re out of the dark,
You’re out of the night. Step into the sun,

Step into the light.

We were neither in Kansas nor The Land. A whole new part of world was waiting for us. Definitely worth the wait. More to come, including an explanation of what ‘Jambo, jambo’ is all about.

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